By Anthony Bain
I step into an apartment building entranceway deep in the heart of central Barcelona, the décor instantly grabs my attention, created when the city experienced a metamorphosis of modernism architecture; intricate multicolored murals look down at me from high ceilings, it’s an awe inspiring sight, designed to disarm any visitor.
For a second I cannot believe that I have the right place. Nothing indicates that some kind of social event is in full swing. No lights, no muffled conversations and no smell of fresh cooking odors seeping out into the stone corridor; Only silence, flickering lights and the musty humid smell of the apartment foyer.
I follow a winding staircase up to the first floor and I knock on a large paneled wooden door and hear the knocking reverberate beyond the door and into the next space, which seems vast and expansive.
I stand for moment reading from a crumpled paper in my hand, just to make sure that I haven´t stumbled across the wrong address.
The door opens, I suddenly feel like a tourist exiting a plane in a strange and mysterious land, exotic aromas spill out into the stairway; the compression chamber is open. I finally have arrived.
Using the same concept as the supper clubs of the Jazz days of post prohibition America, Mount Laviniais a Clandestine restaurant, moving from basement flat to art loft, to kitchen space, keeping the concept of exotic gastronomy fresh and on the move throughout a city which is well-known for its for gastronomic prowess.
For a long time I´ve yearned to take my taste buds on a Journey, not just turn up to a restaurant and order an exotic meal, but really live the experience, have the chef explain every intricate detail of what goes into the preparation, from Market to table: total Immersion dining.
Chef Faraaj the creator of Mount Lavinia Supper Club hands me an imported Lion Larger and shows me towards a group of about eight people who are milling around a work surface and an open chill out area, talking amongst themselves, while he carefully blends spices in a stone mortar and pestle and hands out tidbits on the history of Sri Lanka and the spice trade.
“It is based on quite a few periods of colonization” he says constantly picking up jars from his work surface, measuring spices hand to eye and adding them to a pot which has already began to sizzle on the hob “It is basically a blend of indigenous ingredients and local cooking techniques with influences from Portuguese, Indonesian and Malay cooking.”
I ask him about the reasoning behind Mount Lavinia Supper club.
“In one word; disillusionment” he says sighing in obvious frustration. “Asian food in this city tends to be modified or diluted to the Spanish palette. I just want to give Barcelona real cuisine as you would eat in anybody’s house in Sri Lanka without compromising on taste.”
As an entrée, Chef Faaraj rolls mango slices covered in grated coconut and sprinkled with lime juice and a bit of chili for “a kick” to wake our taste buds up and hands them out to his guests along with fresh tuna and black pepper croquettes and Okra Samosas.
Two foodies from New York introduce themselves to me and intensely discuss the quality and flavors of the food while chef Faaraj dispenses another round of Lion beers to his guests. He then gets down to work on the second course, Dhal, a lentil dish which he adds the array of pre-blended spices to, basmati rice with crushed coriander seeds and cashew nuts.
The rest of the guests chill out in the apartment lounge where a Sri Lankan travel documentary silently plays on a projector while Sri Lankan hip hop spills out from a nearby sound system. The whole setup is clearly designed to wet the guest’s appetite and give an encompassing feeling of being – in country, clandestinely traveling via the senses.
I ask Chef Faaraj if he has never thought of opening his own restaurant.
”I could never open a restaurant” he says surprised by my question, “I need to be able to shop and cook the food personally. That way I know what I’m serving, I have one hundred percent quality control on everything, something which I risk by opening a commercial enterprise.Cooking for me is like painting a picture. I could never allow anybody else to pick up my paints and easel and takeover.”
He tells me that all of his ingredients are sourced from La Boquiera, Barcelona´s famous food market and every chef’s favorite hangout, where food is is shipped in daily from all over the world. Every ingredient he meticulously researches to keep the food as “Sri Lankan as possible.” Preparation and execution from the Market to the table are clearly deeply personal things for him.
Several of the guest ensemble have now migrated towards Faaraj at his kitchen who is busy slicing locally farmed marbled beef to create a beef curry, he warns that “it might be spicy” but encourages us to sip Lion dark Larger so as to “chase the spice” and “bring out the flavors”.
While busy adding the beef to a sizzling spice pot he tell us stories about how his family prepare dishes back in Sri Lanka and by now all the guests are around the kitchen unit and intently listening to him. Some of them are repeat offenders, “he changes the dishes, every month” they tell me “One month it´s seafood, the next it´s street food, and sometimes he does Sri Lankan tapas.” It´s clearly the innovation and variation of the chef which brings them back.
Two of the guests are French chefs who are doing a Clandestine restaurant tour of Barcelona, to see for themselves the frontier of culinary exploration. They seem like two children in a sweet shop. “People are becoming more adventurous” they tell me. “They no longer conform to the normal dining concept, they want to be more involved in the process, interact with the chef on a personal basis, and the clandestine restaurant allows them to do that.”
Clandestine restaurants also offer a promising chef a way to evolve and grow without the make or break pressure of opening a restaurant. The idea of the clandestine restaurant´s secrecy means that it will attract likeminded people, who seek something more intrepid and more visceral. Reservations are done via social networking websites, in a way the whole concept of the clandestine restaurant is a natural extension of social media. Previous guests can invite friends via websites, the concept works even more so in Barcelona which is proving to be constantly renewing itself and pushing the boundaries of social modern cuisine.
Chef Faaraj announces that dinner is ready and all the guests take a seat at the table and immediately tuck into the food set out on the work surface, roti pancakes, succulent beef curry with potatoes, rice with cashews, Dahl with coconut cream, fried Okra with green chilies and Pol Sambol: a coconut and red chili accompanying dish.
As the guests begin to devour the food, a silence falls across the table which is eventually punctuated by Chef Faaraj who is eating with us, he shrugs his shoulders and begins to laugh, this breaks the ice and the conversation around the table takes off from there. The evening moves in the later hours as the guests share travel stories and food secrets.
After we have all enjoyed several courses and several lagers somebody suggests that we watch the documentary projected on the chill out room wall, with sweet deserts and coffee we settle in for the viewing, all us sharing the same feeling; as if we really are in Sri Lanka.